Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Complaint is a Gift...or the Art of Haute Kvetching

On October 4th, following a disappointing trip to the Bronx Zoo with Big Babe and his lady love, I dashed off the following letter of complaint:
Dear Bronx Zoo,
I cannot believe that I am writing to you -- one of my favorite NYC venues -- to let you know how disappointed I was at my most recent visit....which was this past Sunday, September 30th.
Arriving at the zoo around 3 pm with my son and girlfriend -- who live in Berlin -- we were presented with two levels of payment: basic and the all-encompassing exorbitant fee, which included rides and special exhibitions.
We decided that as we had about two and a half hours, the basic fee would suffice.
Sadly, because so many important attractions are now behind a paywall -- and other exhibitions were just empty -- we saw pathetically little for our $16 admission per person.
The zoo does, however, have a new Disney kind of look. It seems that Halloween cannot arrive early enough...with all the spooky decorations....more than a month before Halloween itself.
I call that cheap and infuriating.
Your patrons would prefer fewer gravestones and more animals.
And speaking of gravestones, unless you pay through the nose, it seems that the average person's trip to the Bronx Zoo is going to be kind of...dead.
How can you address this problem?
First off...I believe you have an obligation to inform the public at the entrance if key exhibitions are closed or under renovation. Signs at the entrance heralding the closing of an iconic exhibition such as the Monkey House would have been greatly appreciated. Even the Zoo employee outside the building agreed that it was not fair to patrons as he absorbed our shock and disappointment when we arrived to find a "Closed for Renovation" sign on the building.
But that was hardly the only problem.

The giraffes were missing in action as were the zebras and wild dogs.
We did not see any elephants.
Hardly any big cats.
And now you have to pay for the Rain Forest, which is the saddest thing ever.
The previous week, on a trip to Philadelphia, I visited their zoo.
What a complete pleasure it was to walk, unfettered, through the zoo, undisturbed by silly Halloween decorations, getting up close and personal to so many varieties of animals!
What a joy to stand behind glass and watch not one, but two tigers play and chase each other!
How moving to watch a family of giraffes nuzzle one another.
How entertaining to observe the gorillas for nearly half an hour.
Leaving the Bronx Zoo at 5 pm (not 5:30, by the way. We started getting hustled out of attractions by grumpy guards at 5, so you might want to correct the misimpression that the zoo is really open until 5:30) we had the sour taste of disappointment in our mouths.
Maybe if you are the parent of young children more intent upon wearing a ridiculous snake hat than actually experiencing wildlife the NEW Bronx Zoo is a success.
For this lifelong New Yorker, it was one of the saddest days in recent memory.
Therefore, feeling frankly ripped off, I would like a refund.
Or, if you think that I just attended the zoo on a "bad" day, I would welcome replacement tickets so that I can redeem my Bronx Zoo memories.
Shira Dicker
Though this letter became the subject of much hilarity in the Urban Bungalow -- occasioning a dramatic reading around my Shabbat table -- I was delighted but hardly surprised when I received a courteous and concerned email three days later, asking if the manager of admissions and guest relations could call me to discuss my experience.

Now I am known in my family for being a customer service freak, the person most likely to send back an unsatisfactory dish at a restaurant, to write to corporate headquarters detailing an unfortunate encounter with personnel at a store, someone who takes the Biblical commandment "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue" so seriously that I live it it an in an up-close and personal way.

Indeed, I feel that kvetching in general gets a bad rap. In my experience, complaints are portals to important conversations and women are especially good at hearing beyond the simple kvetch, getting to the heart of the problem, perhaps even offering solutions or helpful suggestions on how to improve the situation.

Yet there is an art to successful kvetching and I believe I am a practitioner of Haute Kvetching. A positive outcome depends on being courteous, clever, articulate and proactive. Humor also doesn't hurt.

My artful kvetching has resulting in a fairly good track record of receiving compensation...and sometimes an apology.

Yet the invitation to speak to the director of guest relations at the Bronx Zoo exceeded my expectations.

"Mom, this belongs in Shouts and Murmurs," said Big Babe ambiguously, making me uncertain whether he thought my email was spoof-worthy or commendably clever, in any case suitable for a New Yorker feature.

"At UJA-Federation, they taught us that 'A Complaint is a Gift,'" added Middle Babe helpfully, going on to explain that at her previous job fundraisers were trained to thank donors who called to voice a complaint, praising them for going to the trouble of caring enough to make their dissatisfaction known.

"Precisely!" I agreed, though I wasn't sure that anyone in my family thought I had given the Bronx Zoo a gift.

I arranged a phone call with the Bronz Zoo customer relations lady...and waited in a state of heightened curiosity to see what would happen.

Several days later, I am delighted to report that I had a friendly, funny and warm conversation with Beth Stolting, where I learned that she had looked into each of my allegations, seeking to understand where the missing zebras, giraffes and hyenas were, pressing me for more details about how best to alert patrons to the closing of the Monkey House, asking more details about the Disney effect, requesting information on the security guard who hustled us from the tiger exhibition at 5 p.m.

Yes, I was offered three free replacement tickets -- and advice on the optimal days and times to return for the ultimate Bronx Zoo experience -- but the real gift to me was the 40-plus minutes I spent on the phone with Ms. Stolting. During that time, we spoke about what felt wrong to this devoted patron... and what could be changed.

Ms. Stolting treated my complaint as a gift. She regarded me as a valued focus group of one.

At the end of the conversation, I made a note to visit her at my return trip to the zoo.

So why am I writing about this happy little episode?

It is not just to recount the glory of successful kvetching to a place of business but to extract an important teaching on the personal front.

Sometimes things go awry in the zoo known as the nuclear family.

Things are missing.

Promises are broken.

Expectations are dashed.

Frustration and disappointment ensues.

There is a feeling of being ripped off.

As Middle Babe said, a complaint is a gift.

When a patron of the family cares enough to complain, the kvetch must be treated as a gift, that is, the portal to an important conversation.

To turn a deaf ear to the complaint is to be guilty of bad customer relations in the most important institution there is -- the family.

A complaint indicates a willingness to work things out.

A complaint signals a problem that can -- and must -- be fixed.

The thing to fear is silence.

As someone else has said in another context, in a relationship, silence equals death.

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